He is from Fairytale; his story is one. Cyprus prepares for a tennis dream

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The Independent Online

No one in Cyprus is thinking of having a lie-in tomorrow. In fact, many Greek Cypriots are likely to be too excited to sleep tonight as the Mediterranean island is gripped by "Marcos mania", contemplating the greatest day in its sporting history.

When Marcos Baghdatis walks out on to a Melbourne tennis court to face the world number one Roger Federer, in the final at the Australian Open, practically all of the 700,000 or so Greek Cypriots will have their chests puffed out in pride and their eyes glued to a screen.

If Baghdatis had not already disposed of a host of top seeds, including the world number two Andy Roddick, the showdown between the unseeded former youth champion and the unparalleled Federer would be a real David and Goliath match. But Baghdatis' extraordinary series of wins has propelled the 20-year-old from an unknown to national acclaim, persuading an island unused to sporting glory into believing he can go all the way. A huge banner was draped over the historical Venetian walls in Nicosia's Eleftheria Square, saying, "Marcos Baghdatis, you honour Cyprus and we honour you".

The player professes himself bewildered by his sudden success in Melbourne but that is nothing compared to the confusion of his compatriots, many of whom know little more about tennis than they do Australian Rules football.

During the unseeded Baghdatis' heroic semi-final comeback from two sets to love against the number four seed David Nalbandian, the national broadcaster was deluged with calls from viewers struggling to follow the rules or work out who was winning. Yiannis Christou said, with tear-filled eyes, that he had never given up hope in the five-set thriller against Argentine Nalbandian. "Even at two sets down, I still kept faith in Marcos. I knew that if he could gradually get back into the match, all was not lost, and he proved me right." Angelos Panayiotou was wrapped in a huge Cypriot flag with Baghdatis' name emblazoned on it. "He's our hero," he said proudly.

But the flag-waving has not been to everyone's taste in the ethnically divided island. One Greek Cypriot, Timis Nicolaou, 33, said although he was a tennis fan he was upset at the sea of Greek flags during the celebrations. "I am annoyed at the way he has been hijacked with all this nationalist sentiment," he said. Some Turkish Cypriots in the north of the divided island feel the same. For them, it is not a Cypriot triumph, just a Greek Cypriot sideshow.

"We see it as a victory for our neighbours, not for us," said Mustafa Ozsoy, the sports editor of the biggest-selling Turkish Cypriot daily, Kibris. "We are happy for the Greek Cypriots but it doesn't make headlines for us."

In Limassol, near Baghdatis' home, the air was filled with blaring car horns as people drove through the streets, flags flapping out of windows. Baghdatis' heroics have even convinced a football-mad island to play with little yellow balls. Tennis lessons and rackets have shot to the top of their wish-lists everywhere.

Baghdatis comes from a tiny village south of Limassol whose name, Paramytha, means Fairytale. His mother, Androulla, and father, Christos, who run a clothing import business from their one-storey house, have been deluged with wellwishers.

Their son first picked up a tennis racket when he was five, and when he was 14, he was sent to a French tennis academy under an Olympic Solidarity scholarship. He finished the 2003 season on top of the junior world rankings. Now, as he is on the world stage, his father, clearly tired by the media circus, said there was a downside to his son's talents. "I feel as if I've missed seeing my son grow up," he said. "A family is like a chain, but ours has been missing one link."

The Cypriot government had offered to fly the family over to Melbourne to watch the final, but Mr Baghdatis would not go. A superstitious fear of breaking a winning habit took precedence over reuniting the family chain.

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